Commentary Magazine


Small-Town Detroit:
Motor City on the Move

Since Detroit does not have a palpable personality, like Atlanta or Montreal, the newcomer can only begin to understand it by realizing that, although the fifth largest city in the United States, it is still essentially a small town. Its increase in population (more than a million since 1940) came so quickly, bursting the city at the edges and spewing people all the way to Ann Arbor in one direction and nearly to Toledo in another, that it did not have time to change character in the process. Its concerns are still those of a small town; so are its social alliances, its prejudices, its political alignments. Detroit has abundant new wealth and some cultural pretension, but not much sophistication; it contains a variety of nationalities and races without achieving cosmopolitanism. It hatches innumerable plans for civic betterment and civic improvement without engendering much civic pride. There must be Detroiters who would take the preceding sentence as a personal affront, but one seldom meets them. Detroit is not a city that is loved, as New York is, as San Francisco is. It is not even a city that is passionately hated. It is frequently annoying, generally ugly; it chiefly inspires indifference.

One reason for this is that Detroit is a kind of transient hotel. There is a continual influx of newcomers, mainly Southerners, both white and Negro. Those who come from the South do not choose Detroit for some inherent glamor in its name, but because they hope to find work in the automobile plants, or because they have friends and relatives who have preceded them in the same migration. For the most part, they are limited by lack of experience to the lowest paying non-skilled jobs, and they live in crowded slums. The collapsing frame houses, with sagging porches and window frames askew, which dot Paradise Valley, Detroit’s worst Negro slum, are open sores that indicate the kind of decay which must be present even in the brick buildings, two-family homes and small apartments, where too many people are forced to live together. The white slums, usually called the hillbilly slums, are of much the same quality, have much the same look about them. Only the color of the faces at the windows and the kind of music coming from the bars and hash houses (rock and roll in the Negro slums, country music in the white) indicate the racial character of a neighborhood, and on many slum streets the two races meet in a common squalor. The city of Detroit can hardly have much attraction for the transplanted Southerner who has not yet dug his way out of the slums.

The attraction is apparently not much stronger for the more comfortably off. Almost any Sunday, the Detroiter out for a casual drive is likely to run into a traffic pile-up on an insignificant dirt road north of the city, where his country-hungry fellow townsmen have massed for the opening of a new suburban development. The movement toward the suburbs, which has often enough been examined and exclaimed over as a national phenomenon, has a particular piquancy in Detroit. The movement to Livonia or Dearborn, to Birmingham or Bloomfield Hills (each according to his bank account) is not so much an escape from city life as it is a transference of Detroit’s persistent small-townishness to a more correct setting. If the new suburb quickly enlists allegiance in its PTA and Rotary, its country club and its careful pattern of social exchange, these are no more than the new manifestations, at a different economic level, of the old Detroit neighborhood. Perhaps because Detroit has always been a city of neighborhoods, the movement to the suburbs is not so much a withdrawal from the city as it is a recognition, however unconscious, that there is no substantial city from which to withdraw. One has a feeling here that if the layers of the suburbs could be peeled off, like Peer Gynt with his onion, there would be nothing at the center.

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Certainly the property owners in downtown Detroit are becoming economically aware that the movement to the suburbs is spiritual as well as physical. Perhaps because they themselves do not live in Detroit, they know that the suburban dwellers do not like to come into the city and do not do so unless they have no other choice. Northland, a mammoth shopping center which not only serves the suburbs north of Detroit but draws its customers from inside the city as well, has cut deeply into the commercial take in downtown Detroit. The downtown property owners have been carrying on a consistent campaign to remind their old customers that shopping downtown is a pleasure, but they have had small success because the business center of Detroit really has little to offer. It does not have the beauty, the convenience, or even the suspicion of adventure that has always drawn commuting ladies into Manhattan for a day away from the children and the garden. There are very few good restaurants or comfortable cocktail lounges, only one real department store, J. L. Hudson’s, and a handful of movie theaters, playing features that will be in the suburbs in two or three weeks. Transportation, at least from very far out, is difficult and parking is almost impossible. Only loyalty to Hudson’s, Detroit’s own department store, which just noisily celebrated its 75th anniversary, could conceivably lure the distant shoppers; but even that possibility is ruled out by the fact that Northland is built around a Hudson’s as well-stocked as the main store downtown. It is not surprising, then, that Detroiters prefer Northland, with its free parking space, its variety of small shops around the central store, its concourses and courts, its gardens and fountains and benches to rest on. Sometimes Northland is described in reverent tones as as much an aesthetic adventure as a shopping center; many Detroiters do drive out and sit around the courts on Sunday when the stores are closed. Actually the place is somewhat garish (not inappropriate in Detroit, the producer of puce-colored automobiles). Whatever Northland’s drawbacks—and let’s leave them to Lewis Mumford to discover—shopping there is obviously more convenient and pleasant than shopping downtown, so the dwindling returns downtown testify. Eastland, Northland’s counterpart in another direction, is now under construction.

There are various projects afoot which will, it is hoped, revive Detroit, and give it a sense of community. The Civic Center, the new construction that includes the mammoth City-County Building, the elaborate Veterans’ Building, and the new Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium, which is scheduled to open in the fall, is designed to bring grace and space to the area along the Detroit River which was once one of the ugliest parts of downtown Detroit. As yet it is no more than a handsome and incongruous island in an otherwise decaying area.

The Arts Center, within easy reach of downtown Detroit, encloses Wayne University, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Public Library, and a variety of separate small institutions that have some connection with the arts or education. Wayne, which has just become a state university, is expanding rapidly, building or projecting to build a number of new structures that will lift the offices out of the horde of two- and three-story brick houses where they are now found—or, for the newcomer, often not found. If the new library and Music Building are indications of what is to come, Wayne’s campus may, several years from now, actually be both beautiful and useful. Not only is Wayne to expand, but both the library and the art museum are to get new buildings and it is hoped that a number of comfortable and attractive apartment buildings will go up in the neighborhood and turn the Arts Center into a real community. At the moment, however, the infant Arts Center is caught between the outrageous Paradise Valley which trails off to the east, and another slum which runs west. The few good apartments in the vicinity are more intent on preserving their racial exclusiveness than they are on being part of an intellectual center, which must finally be, if it is ever to be, as interracial as Wayne itself.

There is also a plan, still somewhat embryonic, to raze downtown Michigan Avenue, Detroit’s Skid Row, and replace the ratty old bars and flophouses with light industry and concomitant housing that would turn the area into one in which men could live and work. Four of the hospitals within the city have also recently suggested an extensive redevelopment plan that would permit a giant Medical Center to rise out of the ashes of Paradise Valley. Insofar as these projects are generally concerned with the city, and not simply with shoring up falling property values, their intention is a happy one. Whether or not these few areas, brightened into new beauty, will prove to be the good apples in the barrel of rotten ones that spread their health to the whole is far less certain. The increasing isolation of the Columbia-Riverside neighborhood in Manhattan and the University of Chicago area in that city makes one wonder if these projects are as hopeful as they sometimes seem to be. It is too early to judge, and foolish to condemn out of hand; it is sufficient to notice that, as of now, the moving vans are heading in the other direction—out.

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Behind the movement to the suburbs lies more than the familiar rise in economic status. There is the pattern of change within the city, which is national and racial, which naturally engenders tension and even a sense of panic. Detroit has, of course, long been a city of pockets, neighborhoods which retained their national, racial, or religious characteristics. Despite the inevitable assimilation, the old identifications are still strong. As the Jewish neighborhood in the Dexter Avenue area becomes Negro, the Jews move as a group to the fashionable mudflats of picture-windowed Oak Park or to the solid, phony-Tudor area around Six Mile Road, whose earlier inhabitants, escaping the Jews who have escaped the Negroes, move out still farther. The old Italian neighborhood around the Eastern Market has long since become Negro; in the last few years the Italians have been moving in increasing numbers into Grosse Pointe, while old Pointers have clucked at the newcomers, and pointed in still another direction. Multiple pressures, of course, hold these groups together. For the most part, the movers have gone to the same schools and churches, belonged to the same social groups, gone to the same parties, and, inevitably in small-town Detroit, moved into the same new neighborhoods.

The pressure of old prejudices is also binding. One hears that a Jew has finally broken the barrier in Birmingham and been able to buy a house, but one hears as frequently quite a different story. A teacher whose name was not obviously Jewish was about to sign the papers for the purchase of a lot in one of the new developments, when the agent thought suddenly to ask him if he was Jewish. When he answered that he was, the agent explained, “Of course, we can’t refuse to sell you the lot, but I think your children would not be happy here.” There are occasional, unfortunate public testimonies to the old group differences. When a makeshift theatrical troupe called the Dublin Players made a two-day appearance in Detroit last March, their first performance was for some reason late in getting started. A city official on the sponsoring committee came out to beguile the restless audience. It was St. Patrick’s Day, the audience was almost solidly Irish, and he at first amused them with a suitable joke about an Irish Catholic priest and a stick-up man, and then, searching for something correct for the family gathering, came up with a mildly anti-Semitic joke. There was almost certainly no intended malice in his choice of story, but his casual, unthinking use of it may explain partially what a Jew finds in a place like Oak Park—an inarticulated communal defense against anti-Semitism.

The greatest tension, of course, is to be found in the areas that are changing from white to Negro. The Detroit News recently reported with some pride the achievement of the Boston-Edison Protective Association, a thirty-year-old organization that is working to preserve the character and uphold the property values in a neighborhood a few blocks north of Wayne University. Prior to 1948, the Association’s main concern was with keeping out Jews and Negroes, but, moved by the Supreme Court decision of that year, the Association decided to welcome any and all comers who would genuinely concern themselves with preserving the neighborhood as a pleasant place in which to live. On May 14 the Association held a party—the occasion for the News article—in which the members gathered in a self-congratulatory mood to celebrate their liberal hearts and their well-preserved neighborhood. I do not mean to be flip about their achievement, but the circumstances are so special that it can hardly be “the real solution,” as which, according to the News, it has been hailed by Wayne sociologists. For one thing, the property is expensive (“up to $100,000”-but not many can be that high); for another, the inhabitants, white and Negro, Jew and Gentile, are a special group—professional men, academics, clergymen, civic leaders. It would be comforting to think that the Boston-Edison experiment could be a pilot neighborhood for the rest of the city to copy, but the evidence elsewhere makes that hope an unlikely one. Occasionally a single street will hit some sort of balance—as in a few streets in Highland Park—where the division is almost equal, where the whites and Negroes are able to live alongside each other with no trouble. Such streets are anomalies, however, and although their balance may represent a desired social situation, it is unlikely that they can really survive long in the prevalent atmosphere of change.

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The process of change is almost as fixed as a ritual, from the last desperate moment when an all-white street, panicked by what is happening a few blocks away, tries to hold onto its racial purity, to the moment when a nearly Negro street pressures the last few white families into moving. The first break in the all-white street is likely to come when one of the residents, who may be moving for any of a number of reasons, recognizes that he can make more money by selling his property to a Negro, for the Negro, hedged in by all sorts of informal restrictions, is in no position to bargain over price; there are not that many houses he can bid on. The “For Sale” signs then begin to pop up like mushrooms in the spring. That old bogey, “falling property values,” is on everyone’s lips, but the more genuine impetus to sell lies in the complicated fear of social contamination; the real fear that the quality of the schools will change (many observers insist that the consistent under-preparation of the Negro students coming into Wayne University is not so much the result of early schooling in the South, the usual excuse, as it is that the Board of Education is less careful about teachers and facilities in schools after the Negroes move in); and in the recognition that property values are higher in the first stages of a neighborhood’s transition. Occasionally there is violence on one side or the other, depending usually on the character of the neighborhood to start with, and often on the combustibility of the teen-agers, for the tensions are strongest where the two races meet for the first time in high school. But usually the pressures from both sides are subtler.

In April of this year Detroit had a near-farcical, if appalling, indication of the tenseness that exists in the virginal white neighborhood. John Rouse, half Cherokee, half French Canadian, accustomed to living among whites, bought a home on Robson Avenue, a middle-class neighborhood unaccustomed to Indians. His new neighbors, convinced that he was a Negro, greeted his appearance with threats and offers of more money to get rid of him. He went, protesting against the injustice of the whites in thinking him a Negro and treating him like one, without ever considering that the pressure would have been unjust in the case of a real Negro. The neighbors, a little regretting their haste, were sorry that they had not known him to be an Indian; still, they agreed that it was good that he was leaving because someone, sharing their original mistake, might misunderstand his presence in the neighborhood. At the other end of the process, a faculty member at Wayne, who lives in a neighborhood now predominantly Negro, said recently that he had to look for a new place to live; the new Negro landlord of his apartment building is making clear to the remaining white tenants that they are not really welcome.

The Dexter Avenue area is an excellent example of one in transition. On Dexter itself are all the identification marks of a Jewish neighborhood—the kosher butchers, the delicatessens, the bookshop selling literature in Hebrew and Yiddish, the Barton’s candy shop; on neighboring Linwood is a bagel bakery and a caterer who deals in cocktail knishes. The residential streets that run off these two main avenues, lined for the most part with two-family homes, are abloom with “For Sale” signs; most of them are already mixed streets. Just as the Eastern Market, which always mixed Michigan garden truck with its Italian products, now has stands for collard greens, so the signs on the grocery windows begin to indicate that the neighborhood is changing from Jewish to Negro. Farther east, on Twelfth Street, which was once one of the Jewish main streets, there are still a few relics of the past, like one popular delicatessen-type restaurant, which, despite the fact that it is almost a Jewish island in a Negro sea, is reluctant about serving Negroes at its tables.

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Although the Dexter Avenue area may mirror the social side of transition, it cannot begin to indicate the political importance inherent in the neighborhood changes in Detroit. The Jewish community in Detroit has never been big enough to constitute a definitive voting bloc; no Jew has even been able to count on a political career in the city. Such is not the case with the Negroes, however, for Detroit is one of the largest Negro cities in the North. Detroit’s only Negro Congressman at present is Representative Charles M. Diggs, Jr., but for the first time the Negro community has felt strong enough to hope for a second Representative. The Poles have been the dominant group in Detroit Democratic politics since they wrested control from the Irish years ago, but now in the traditionally Democratic First District, the most Polish of the Polish districts, the Negroes are bidding for power. Obviously this local struggle is being played against a national backdrop, the lurking possibility that the Negroes will bolt the Democratic party in large numbers over the issue of desegregation. The district organization is still in the hands of the Poles, a fact that became apparent when the Negroes lost a fight for an all-Negro slate of delegates to the Democratic convention in Chicago. In the Congressional primary of August 7, the incumbent Thaddeus M. Machrowicz defeated Miss Cora Brown, the first Negro woman ever to be a state senator in Michigan, for the Democratic candidacy for representative in the First. This double testimony to the ascendancy of the Poles in that district should not be overrated, however, for the Negroes, by making two serious attempts to gain control of the First, have carved out a new position of strength for themselves in Michigan Democratic politics.

In a city in which the Negroes have so much voting power, discrimination against any minority cannot comfortably be a matter for public record. Only a man like Orville L. Hubbard, the perennial mayor of all-white Dearborn, can make open statements, like his whole-hearted defense of segregation which was picked up by Southern newspapers and politicians who need just that kind of air to fan their own windmills. It is not the Hubbards, however, that are important in the continuing undertone of discrimination through Detroit; it is the official indifference within Detroit itself. In a statement dated February 20, 1956, the Civic Affairs Committee of Americans for Democratic Action accused the Commission on Community Relations, a city department supposedly concerned with all matters of discrimination and race relations, of marking time; in two years the Commission had made no recommendations to the Mayor or Common Council, nor had the city officials asked for any. The Commission was first established as a result of the 1943 race riot, and in its early years, when it was still the Mayor’s Interracial Committee, before it had achieved the muscle-binding status of a city department, it was a vigorous and useful instrument for education and cooperation among races. Under its present director, the Commission has, according to the ADA statement, consistently failed to make use of the community groups, white and Negro, whose support would be necessary in any genuine work in community relations. Police Commissioner Piggins recently prepared a report for the Commission in which he characterized the racial situation in Detroit as relatively calm and harmonious; the incident of the Indian on Robson Avenue must apparently have been one of the “isolated instances of minor tensions, distorted far beyond their real significance,” which he uses to explain why some people feel that Detroit is racially on edge. It is the contention of the ADA, however, and of other organizations such as the NAACP and some of the unions, that tension can best be relieved and violence avoided if an active campaign of education is waged continuously, if cooperation between interested groups is stimulated before it is dangerously needed. Lurking behind the present concern is the memory of the 1943 race riot. No one expects a repetition of that outbreak but still its shadow hangs over the shifting city, as Father Coughlin’s garish church hangs over Woodward Avenue, a testimonial to earlier and older hates.

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Detroit is not only a ready-made laboratory for the observations of itinerant sociologists and political scientists, it is also the Motor City. Locally the name is used with an odd mixture of reluctance and boosterism, occasionally incongruously, as in a sleazy skating rink and boxing palace on Woodward Avenue which proudly proclaims itself the Motor City Arena. The designation is even gaining national currency; on network disk jockey shows, you can now hear, “Out in Motor City they are dancing to—.” America’s concern with the iconography of automobile development-Pushbutton Power-Flite, Strato-Flight Hydra-Matic, Variable Pitch Dynaflow—is particularly virulent in Detroit, as might be expected in a factory town which depends upon one industry for its economic health. It is possible, even congenial, to talk about something other than automobiles in Detroit, but if one eavesdrops on the conversation of the well-dressed young businessmen in a downtown chophouse or of the ragged kids walking on Third Street, their voices still rich with a mountain accent, one is likely to hear the same historic discussion of the introduction of automatic transmission.

The first full force of Detroit’s concern with the automobile comes with an examination of the city’s three daily papers. The fall of a government in France or a riot in Cyprus must take a back seat in the Detroit papers if it occurs on the same day that one of the automobile companies issues a press release outlining innovations in next year’s model. A statement by Harlow H. Curtice, Tex Colbert, or one of the Ford boys is certain to receive extensive coverage, and inspirational features on automobile executives are not at all uncommon. Though of the three Detroit dailies only the News is Detroit-owned (the Free Press is one of John Knight’s papers and the Times is Hearst), the automobile coverage of all of them is so great and so consistently industry-oriented that disgruntled Detroiters sometimes call them “the three trade papers.” Occasionally, the newspapers do the city a real disservice. As a result of the way in which this year’s bad production drop was reported, not many Detroiters not directly connected with the auto industry or labor realized what was happening until the situation became critical. Even when the slump in the automobile industry became a matter of concern in newspapers and magazines all across the country, Detroit papers managed to be as sanguine as possible under the unhappy circumstances.

General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, and on the labor side the CIO, particularly the UAW, are influential in every possible segment of Detroit life. The automobile companies are the chief financial and spiritual support of Michigan’s Republican party, with Ford supposedly in the saddle now—and, according to Fortune (December 1955), General Motors sulking at the new look (the Fortune look) in Republican politics. The Michigan Democratic party is generally considered to be the CIO party; certainly a great many UAW officials (as private persons, of course) are active in Democratic politics-working in precincts, sitting on city and state committees, and filling public office. Because of the accumulation of big money in the industry, the companies, through donations to education, charity, and particular civic projects, are able to attain formidable public relations and a continuing and important voice in most of the city’s activities. The unions, too, are important givers of grants, and the UAW, through special sections dealing with community relations and minority problems, does active work throughout Detroit; union officials, either as public-spirited citizens or directly as labor representatives, appear on most civic and charitable committees in the city. There is a continuous stream of articles, pamphlets, and films flowing from the industry’s public relations departments, extolling directly or indirectly the solidity, the achievement, the amiability, and the Americanism of the automobile makers. The unions, too, do some work in film, some directed specifically at their members, some for a more general audience, like the famous “Brotherhood of Man” cartoon the UPA did for UAW, and some pamphleteering, but they can’t match the automobile industry when it comes to dignity-bearing publicity.

The city remains primarily a UAW town, despite the presence of other unions, just as, despite the presence of other industries, it remains primarily an automobile town. By a particularly neat balance, Detroit manages to be a union town and a company town all at once. One can hear the most blatant kind of anti-unionism expressed, sentiments which in the mouths of young college students sound like parodies of industry propaganda of the 30’s; and one can hear, as well, the most casual avowals of unionism, for the children of auto workers who were in on the formation of the UAW are likely to be union supporters, as simply as they are Democrats and Catholics, because it is a family affair.

It is in Detroit that the most important labor-management agreements are likely to be worked out in the future, that the problems of the guaranteed annual wage, the 32-hour week, and automation will be met and solved. Although Detroit is obviously going to be the incubator for the ideas that will turn out to be most significant, socially and economically, for the United States in the near future, it is doubtful that the average Detroiter will be any closer to the decisions than will the average New Yorker or Chicagoan.

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As One might expect in a city its size, Detroit has a scattering of writers, artists, musicians, and scholars, a few of whom have national reputations; the most notable star in the city’s crown is probably Eero Saarinen, architect for the GM Technical Center, who recently graced the cover of Time. Whatever intellectual exchange there is centers around Wayne University and the Cranbrook Academy of Art, although the exchange is so small and so informal that Detroit cannot be said to have a genuine community of ideas. There is not even a bohemia, that fringe-edge indication of a creative center. Like most American cities, Detroit is more congenial to music than to any of the other arts; and, as in most American cities, a certain amount of snobbery dictates attendance at concerts, particularly at those of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Detroit is not much of a theater city. There are two legitimate houses which carry the usual road shows and occasional pre-Broad-way tryouts; there are suburban theaters, semi-professional or amateur, all of which seem to be playing The Tender Trap continuously; and a dedicated, awkward little theater group, World Stage, that operates in a match-box size attic which is still too large for the few customers that it ordinarily draws. Like most American cities of any size, Detroit has several movie theaters that specialize in foreign or unusual films, although ordinarily these stick close to English pictures (Alec Guinness is the distributor’s best bet in Detroit) with an occasional French or Italian offering that can be advertised as dirty. The Detroit Institute of Arts has a good permanent collection and an active schedule of lectures and special exhibits, most of them road shows that are doing the museum circuit all across the United States. The Cranbrook Academy of Art has regular exhibitions, but its particular excellence lies in its work in handicrafts and textiles.

Detroit, then, provides as much opportunity as most American cities for a healthy and energetic cultural life, and certainly each of the arts has its supporters in the city. There is, however, nothing in the collection of possibilities that seems peculiar to Detroit, nothing like Cleveland’s museum or Dallas’s little theater, where a national reputation is built on the fusion of a city and an art. If one were to search for a figure to represent Detroit culturally one would not look to the world of art or music or literature. Two figures somehow seem representative. The first is Edgar A. Guest, who rhymed his way right out of the pages of the Free Press into the somewhat sodden heart of America. His achievement brought him not only fame and riches, but an honorary degree from Wayne University and the distinction of being the only living person to have a Detroit high school named after him. At that institution the poet used to appear annually to give readings of his verse. If Guest is somehow symptomatic of the old, small-town Detroit, the most popular and probably the most indicative figure of the new, bustling city, the Detroit of the electronic age, the metropolis that is still not off the publicity drawing boards, is a television comedian named Soupy Sales. He is a Carolina boy with an unerasable leer and a comic style that mixes the most familiar gestures of burlesque with the most frenetic enthusiasm of the borscht circuit; his signature is a little dance step, known far and wide as the Soupy Shuffle, although to the unpracticed eye it looks remarkably like the old, familiar Flea Hop. There are rumors of a network show for Soupy; if they become more than rumors, Detroit, which has given America the automobile, automation, the Ford Foundation, Charles Wilson, Father Coughlin, Edgar Guest, and Prophet Jones, may again become a national benefactor.

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